News Analysis: German Jews mixed on upcoming elections

FRANKFURT — Germany's Jews feel mixed about a possible change of power in the Bonn government.

Ironically, the man who started his term in office 16 years ago by delivering stinging rebuffs to Jewish sensibilities has won respect over the years from Jewish and Israeli leaders.

But should German Chancellor Helmut Kohl lose to Social Democratic candidate Gerhard Schroeder in the Sunday, Sept. 27 national elections, some Jewish officials expect the new government will improve policy in areas of critical interest to the nation's Jews.

Shortly after Kohl became chancellor, he made a much-criticized comment during a trip to Israel that he personally could not be held guilty for the Holocaust due to the "grace of his late date of birth." He was 15 when World War II ended.

Several years later, the Christian Democratic party leader infuriated the international Jewish community by insisting that President Reagan visit an SS cemetery in Bitburg as a sign of U.S.-German reconciliation.

In later years, however, Kohl took a clearer stand on German responsibility for the Holocaust.

Additionally, under his government, tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union have been allowed to enter Germany. The influx of immigrants nearly tripled the size of the country's Jewish community, which now tops 70,000.

Most Jewish leaders believe that both Kohl and Schroeder would uphold Germany's commitment to Israel and to the German Jewish community.

But some say a change in government could make a difference in other areas of importance to the Jewish community, such as citizenship rights, minority rights, compensation for Holocaust survivors and measures to combat right-wing extremism.

Frankfurt lawyer Michel Friedman, deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, believes that one of the most important issues facing the next government is compensation for Holocaust survivors.

Opposition candidate Schroeder recently backed the idea of a central compensation foundation financed in part with contributions from German firms that profited from slave labor under the Nazis. Schroeder said the firms should follow the example of Volkswagen, which is creating a fund to compensate former slave workers.

Micha Brumlik, an education professor at the University of Heidelberg and co-founder of a Reform Jewish community in Frankfurt, expects a center-left government to take a tougher stand against right-wing extremism. Although the current government has initiated numerous programs to fight right-wing extremism, Kohl has never visited the sites of extremist attacks.

Brumlik said he believes that Social Democratic officials better understand the symbolic value of speaking out against hate attacks.

He also asserts that it's unlikely a far-right party will garner the necessary 5 percent of the vote to enter the lower house of parliament in the fall, in part because of rivalries among far-right parties.

However, after one right-wing party in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt recently captured 13 percent of the vote, Brumlik is not ruling out a repeat upset.

Should a far-right-wing party be elected into the parliament, Brumlik says many young Jews would consider leaving Germany.

Concerned that voters are no longer embarrassed to vote for such parties, he is particularly worried the two major political parties are putting so much emphasis on one of the main themes of the far right — law and order.

Both leading parties recently proposed strict new laws to combat crime, a development Friedman finds problematic because he fears such moves give new validity to extremist platforms.

Michael Brenner, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Munich, cites citizenship rights as another issue of importance to the Jewish community.

Unlike the United States, France and other countries, Germany continues to define citizenship through a parent's heritage, not according to place of birth.

"A center-left coalition would probably change the law to allow dual citizenship," Brenner said. "This is a measure I think the Jewish community should stand behind."

Jewish observers are also eyeing the candidates' attitudes toward Israel.

The ruling conservative coalition has repeatedly sent high-ranking government officials to Israel, a move that Brenner says has been perceived positively within the Jewish community.

Although politicians from left-wing parties have often held a more critical stance toward Israel, Jewish pundits don't expect substantial policy differences toward Israel or toward the immigration of Russian Jews under a Social Democratic government.